Islay and the Sea - Geography and History
This is a story about the seas around the Isle of Islay. While it may seem to be stating the obvious, the Isle of Islay is an island because it is surrounded by the sea, and this fact alone influences everything that happens in Islay. Let's begin with the names and shapes of the seas around Islay's shores.
From the northernmost point of Islay at Rubha Mhail, the Sea of the Hebrides extends northwards towards Ardnamurchan Point. Further north, sailing towards the Western Isles, Eilean Siar or Outer Hebrides, the sea becomes known as the Minch.
Islay's largest sea loch, Loch Indaal, reaches up the middle of Islay, nearly meeting shallow, sandy Loch Gruinart to the north and almost dividing the island in two between Uiskentuie and the Gruinart Flats.
The Sound of Islay runs between the eastern coast of Islay from neighbouring Isle of Jura. Port Askaig is a ferry port on the Sound of Islay, from where Caledonian MacBraynes ferries link Islay with Kennacraig, Colonsay or Oban, and the small ferry, Eilean Diura, plys back and forth between Port Askaig and Feolin, Isle of Jura.
The North Channel, Sruth na Maoile in Gaelic meaning the Straits of Moyle, is the seaway to the southwest between Islay and Northern Ireland. The shortest distance across the North Channel is between Islay's Mull of Oa and Kinbane Head in Northern Ireland, only 35.5 km/24 (land) miles.
The Atlantic Ocean lies west of Islay's shores, and St John's, Newfoundland in Canada's Maritime Provinces is the closest landfall to Islay.
Beaches on Islay's exposed Atlantic west coast, especially at Saligo, Machir (Kilchoman), Kilchiaran and Lossit bays, have strong tidal currents just offshore which pull very strongly out to sea. These beaches are unsafe for paddling, swimming or water sports. It is very dangerous to allow children to play in the sea on floating toys or equipment at these beaches. Here is more infomation about beach safety and and explanation of the tides
Shower developing at Saligo Bay at the Atlantic Ocean
Climate and Weather
Islay's climate is classified as Maritime, as the island's weather is mainly influenced by being surrounded by the sea. The Gulf Stream, an underwater river of of warmed water, crosses the Atlantic from the Caribbean and passes near the west of Islay, ensuring that island weather, though sometimes wet and windy, is never as cold as Canada's Labrador peninsula on the same 55 degree latitude. That's one reason why there are a few palm trees growing in Islay, rather than icebergs! In BBC Radio 4's Shipping Forecast, listen to the report for sea area Malin for weather on Islay's shores. Malin Head is a headland on the north coast of Northern Ireland, and sea area Malin includes the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Islay.
The sea makes Islay's history
The sea has been the natural highway to Islay and the Scottish islands and coasts since the last Ice Age, connecting peoples and places for trade, war and all the cultural aspects of life. Only in recent times have lochs, rivers and seas been seen as borders or barriers. For thousands of years, the seas around Scotland allowed, even encouraged, people to move between the coasts and islands. Few roads existed in Highland Scotland until the 18th century, when General Wade's roads were built during military efforts to subdue the Highland people. Sea passages by colonisers, invaders, traders, missionaries and adventurers helped create Scotland's history.
Islay is a natural hub of the seaways along Scotland's west coast, and for centuries was a stopping-place for seafarers. Islay's long history reveals waves of human migration since earliest times. Archaeologists do not yet know where the prehistoric hunter-gatherers who reached Islay after the last Ice Age came from. However, archaeological evidence shows that people were here in groups, as demonstrated by Islay's Mesolithic flint factory's sites, Neolithic standing stones and chambered cairns, Bronze Age houses, pottery and burial cists, and the hill forts, duns and crannogs of the Iron Age. It is believed that Gaels migrated from Ireland to Islay in the years before 500 AD, and also established the kingdom of Dalriada in what is now mainland Argyll. The next major group to sail to Islay's shores were Norsemen. Norwegian Vikings arrived in the 9th century, settling on the good farmland of 'green, grassy Islay'. Many Islay farms have Norse-influenced names to this day. While the Norse were farmers, they were also famed for their abilities as seamen and ship-builders. Vikings fought for control of the early Scottish kingdom in sea battles, leading the power struggle from Islay.
In 1156, a great sea battle was fought off the west coast of Islay. Somerled, himself of mixed Celtic-Norse descent, fought Scandinavian forces gaining control of Islay and the Inner Hebrides. Eventually, the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles expanded its power over much of the west coast, and was led for almost four hundred years from its seat at Finlaggan. The Lords of the Isles supervised their extensive kingdom from their ships, Viking-style galleys, as the only means of overseeing such a large territory. Somerled's grandson, Donald I, built Dunyvaig Castle overlooking Lagavulin Bay to protect his fleet, and the castle ruins can be seen today. Descendents of Donald I, Clan Donald, held power in Islay until 1612 when the last MacDonald chief sold the Islay lands to Sir John Campbell of Cawdor.
Islay's Ports and Lighthouses
Modern Islay has two seaports where Caledonian MacBraynes ferries and large vessels dock; these are at Port Ellen and Port Askaig. There are yacht moorings and pontoons at Port Ellen Marina. Port Askaig has newly renovated facilities for the CalMac and Jura ferries, and a basin giving shelter to small fishing boats. Shallow-water harbours with piers for small boats are available at Bowmore, Port Charlotte, Bruichladdich and Portnahaven/Port Wemyss, and distilleries at Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain all have their own jetties. Also, numerous Gaelic-Norse place-names around Islay's coastline indicate bays where a small rowing or sailing boat could be beached and pulled up above the high tide mark. There is a special page dedicated to Islay's Lighthouses
Currently about twenty commercial fishing boats operate from Islay. Five larger boats with three crewmen are either dredgers fishing for scallops, or fishing creels to catch lobsters and crabs. When the boats are not at sea they often tie up at Port Ellen pier. The rest of islay's fishing fleet is made up of around fifteen smaller boats, worked by two crewmen fishing creels for crabs and lobsters; some fishing full time and others part-time. Some small boats lie at Port Ellen pier, and some in the basin at Port Askaig, while others are kept on moorings.
Once sales of catches are arranged, most of the fishermen's lobsters and crabs are collected by large lorries with sea-water holding tanks inside them. The shellfish are transported alive to purchasers in Spain. Some scallops are processed in Islay, but most of the catches are shipped away as live shellfish. As well as the Islay fishermen's boats, scallop dredgers, prawn trawlers and scallop divers come to Islay from many other places for a short fishing trip or a season's fishing.
Boatbuilding in Islay
There were formerly several boatbuilders in Islay. The late Gilbert Clark Snr of, Port Charlotte build hand-crafted, beautifully shaped small boats for rowing or sailing. The only boatbuilder currently working in Islay is Gus Newman at Lagavulin, whose Stormcats successfully produces several models of workboats and pleasure craft. The Portnahaven boat repair yard has recently closed.
Isle of Arran Ferry arriving at Port Askaig
Ferries past and present
As all visitors to and residents of Islay experience, Islay now depends mainly on ferries operated by Caledonian MacBrayne for shipment of people, vehicles and goods; foodstuffs, the mails, fuels and both raw ingredients and manufactured items, from the mainland ports of Kennacraig or Oban. Although most distilleries were built beside the sea with small piers for shipment by small cargo ships, the coal-fired 'puffers', the CalMac ferry now transports whisky either in bulk tanks for blending or in casks. Livestock leaves Islay's farms in 'floats', adapted lorries carried on the ferry, after the island's seasonal auction sales. Animals are sold for breeding, or 'finishing' on lowland farms. Now that the new Islay abbatoir at Avonvoggie is operational, more of the island's livestock can be slaughtered and butchered here for local comsumption, or sold as prepared meat. Compound livestock feeds, hay and some straw are brought to Islay by ferry, as is fertilizer for crops. There is a special page about Islay's Islay's ferry history
Many of Islay's traditional stories, and new stories too, concern the sea; either arrivals from it or departures from Islay or other islands on the sea, or even into it. A nice example of these traditional stories are the booklets from Dougie MacDougall from Port Askaig